Friday, January 18, 2013

Watch the Cows

Next time you go through farm country, watch the cows.

I have seen 20 tons of rippling bovine flesh held back by the discipline of a single wire pulsing with 4,000 volts.

Every cow hits the electric fence once.   Very few hit it a third time, and the reason for this is simple:  the discomfort is greater than the gain, the punishment is immediate, and it’s always the right bad actor that gets the jolt.

Electric fences are very good animal trainers.

Compare the way we train the cows to the way we train white collar criminals.

For the country club set, the jolt is 40 volts, not 4,000, and in compensation for running through the fence the Corporate Bull gets a lifetime of green, a beach house, a blonde pneumatic wife, and private schools for the kids

Instead of an immediate punishment, the punishment comes 10 years after the act.

Instead of the bull that knocks down the fence getting the shock, it's administered to a flock of chickens (stock holders) picking through the manure of prospectus' scattered two fields over.

And we wonder why the Bulls of Wall Street do not respect the fence? I have some idea!

I have written about dog training the corporation before (see here and here), but this morning a very nice piece by Mark Kleiman came across the monitor.  Kleiman is professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.  and the author of "When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment."  More than 20 years ago, he also said very nice things about my monograph on eradicating street drugs markets.  

Mark writes in the current edition of The Washington Monthly:

Theory and evidence agree: punishment that is swift, certain, but not severe will control the vast bulk of offending behavior. Severity is not only a poor substitute for swiftness and certainty, it is also the enemy of both. The more severe a sanction is, the less frequently it can be administered. (Prison cells are scarce and expensive, and the steeper the punishment, the more time consuming the processes required to avoid gross miscarriages of justice.)


It does not take much "correction" to change animal behavior if the correction is immediate and always occurs, and is sufficiently uncomfortable, disappointing, or ego-deflating.   That is especially true if the bad behavior does not have a long track record of reward behind it, or if the reward or benefit from the bad behavior is not very strong or immediate.

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